Which Stove? Chinese, South American or European?
The wood burning stove industry has exploded in South Africa over the past 5-10 years. A large part of that ‘boon’ is the influx of very affordable cheaper fireplace products from South America and China (along, of course, with hefty rate increases on Gas and Electricity as heat sources for our homes).
But does it matter what stove you purchase? After all, it’s just a metal box isnt it? Are there really any tangible differences in the cheaper products?
It is truthfully impossible to be entirely impartial on the subject. However, as an owner of both a British manufactured product (Charnwood) and a Chinese manufactured product (we have two stoves), I do believe I am well placed to understand and comment on the differences.
(NB: This article was updated in 2018. See comment at the end of the article).
We inherited our Chinese stove (rated as 14 KW by the supplier) with our home and it has performed quite admirably. It is fully cast iron (an important detail when considering a cheaper stove in my opinion) and came with an importers warranty of 10 years (the importers are providing the guarantee based on their favourable experience with the manufacturers in China). Most cheaper stove products in South Africa will not offer you more than a 1 or 3 year warranty so do your homework.
I installed my British product myself when I realised that we spent more time in the ‘TV Lounge’ in winter. No surprises but I went with a ‘Charnwood’ product (7 KW ‘Island I’ in ‘Almond’) which sits at the higher end of the budget range compared to your product from the Far East. The Charnwood product also has a 10 year manufacturer’s guarantee backed by the manufacturers who have a stove production heritage spanning 5 decades.
Having run my Chinese stove for a winter season and my Charnwood for the same period, I could confidently confirm the following:
Both are superior to an open fireplace.
The Charnwood fireplace was superior in terms of ease of use. I could only regulate my air intake to a point with the more rudimentary controls on the Chinese product. At times I had the air vents fully closed but the fire was still drawing very strongly. This raised questions regarding the efficiency rating on the Chinese stove which was labelled as 80%. With a reduced ability to control the oxygen to my fire, I would suggest a lower rating would be more accurate (difficult to speculate but 60-70% would seem more reasonable compared to the European product which is rated at 78% under rigourous testing).
My Charnwood stove, on the other hand, behaved as one would expect – like the finely-tuned piece of engineering it is. More flame required? I pulled the air control mechanism out. Less required? I pushed it in – it really was as simple as that.
The Chinese stove is manufactured in a traditional manner using cast panels that are bolted together and ‘sealed’ using a fire cement product. It is evident that over time, I will need to renew my fire cement if I wish to maintain my stove’s ‘efficiency’ as air cracks will allow excessive oxygen to the combustion chamber. It would also be worthy of note that a stove with loose panels is a hazard in terms of carbon monoxide emissions, particularly if you do not have a strong draw on your flue system so check your cast iron products each season and re-seal as necessary. Charnwood stoves do not require this consideration as they are manufactured from boiler-plate steel which is ‘one-piece’ wrapped around the body of the stove with two additional pieces welded top and bottom – no air cracks here.
I attempted an over-night burn test. This test was (and may still be) one of the qualifying factors for CE rating (Conformitee European). A stove should be capable of burning (slumber mode) over-night (10 hours) with wood as the fuel. Again, the Charnwood stove was easy to test. I stoked up my fire just before bed time, put 3 pieces of wood on (Blue Gum), pushed the air-flow control completely in (which automatically engages an over-night ‘slumber mode’) and went to bed (9.30- 10.00pm). In the morning, I viewed my stove (circa 7.00am) and could see large lumps of ‘charcoal’ in the grate. I opened the ‘quattro-flow’ air-vent to full and went to boil the kettle. When I returned, flames were leaping from the charcoal pieces! I attempted similar tests on my Chinese product but could never quite achieve the same result. My best attempt (that I monitored by chance due to an early morning trip to the kitchen at around 3 am) resulted in some glowing embers still visible after approx 5-6 hours. Not bad, but not up to the same standard as the European product.
In a similar test, I ‘dabbled’ with anthracite. A word of advice, I am informed that the quality of anthracite for sale here is not fabulous. Apparently, the good stuff is exported. Either way, I tried both stoves with the fuel. The Charnwood has a ‘converting’ grate which means that you can set the grate to be more ‘open’ for burning fossil fuels such as anthracite. The grate did it’s job after I had established a good fire with wood. My Chinese product also managed to burn the anthracite but I found the need to supplement with wood during the evening to keep the anthracite burning. To be frank, I prefer wood as a fuel anyway but if anthracite is your preferred fuel, then the Charnwood performs better in my opinion. I have, in fact, met persons who have purchased the Charnwood for the sole purpose of burning anthracite. The Charnwood riddle/converting grate also does quite a nice job. However, it is inevitable that anthracite pieces get stuck in the riddle mechanism inhibiting the ability to fully move the grate at will. This is just ‘one of those things’ when burning anthracite. It is also important to note that your ashpan needs emptying much more often when burning anthracite as it deposits ash quickly. I found that I would need to empty at least twice in a 24hr period. With wood it is once every couple of days or so.
Another qualifying requirement for CE rating is either a ‘heat-resistant’ handle or a ‘glove’. My Chinese product had neither but I developed the ancient martial-art of ‘speed touching’ my door handle to prevent any serious burns! My Charnwood product has a handle that I can hold at any time during the burn process without leaving my finger tips behind.
A couple of other refinements make my Charnwood ‘experience’ slightly more pleasant than my Chinese product. The riddle mechanism is particularly effective on the Charnwood at shaking ash into the ash pan whereas my Chinese product required a little more manual assistance. The Charnwood ash grate is fitted with panels left and right to encourage ash into the pan (not 100%). Whereas my Chinese stove has the pan sitting under the main central part of the grate but with substantial gaps along the sides so I inevitably get ash build-up down the sides.
All in all, both products do a fair job in terms of what they are supposed to do – keep you warm. However, I believe the refinements on the European product (in this case the Charnwood) make it well worth the extra investment financially. Your stove should be a life-time purchase so I would prefer to get it right first time. Like so many things in life, you get what you pay for and this is indeed the truth with wood burning stoves from my experience!
We replaced our Chinese product in 2017 with a Charnwood Cove 2 after finding the function was deteriorating over time. Check out the video on Youtube of our findings when the stove was removed. Click on the Youtube link below: